New BOE Vote Waives Activity Fee in Budget
Second vote results in unanimous scraps activity in 2011-12 budget; special-needs students will remain in district.
What a difference a week makes. At a special meeting Monday night, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education scrapped the plan it approved last Thursday, backing a new plan that eliminates the activity fee paid by families of students who participate in after-school programs.
On the second vote of the night, the BOE approved a 2011-12 budget that will earmark $120,000 of $770,000 the district will receive in state aid to pay the activity fee for students who participate in programs such as sports and theater.
Board member Betty Anne Woerner, who was not present at the Thursday meeting, explained that the activity fee was a stress for many families, and the board should assist in relieving some of that burden while they are in the position to do so.
“I think there are problems with the fee,” she said. “It’s not an ideal structure in terms of equity and burden. Everyone is charged the same amount, even though some student’s clubs are more expensive than others. I think we should rethink it if we ever need to impose it again, which we might. We have the opportunity to remove it, and I strongly encourage we take that opportunity. We might not be able to do it again, but I think it’s appropriate at this point.”
The change in plan will not, however, affect the BOE's decision to spend $200,000 to build portable classrooms and alleviate space limitations in Park Middle School. Board members say long-term cost savings will result from keeping special-education students in the district. These students had been bused to other districts for classes.
The remaining $423,700 would be returned to the taxpayers, leading to a tax increase of $64 per average Scotch Plains household and a $151 tax decrease per average Fanwood household. The plan last week was to retain the activity fee and use $623,000 toward tax relief. When voted on again Monday, BOE members were deadlocked, 4-4, which forced another vote. Vice President Rob O’Connor, who favored retaining the fee, was absent. Board president Trip Whitehouse voted against the proposal, after remaining neutral last week.
At the Board’s regular meeting Thursday night, the board voted 5-2 to keep the activity fee. Board members who favored the proposal said that it would be fiscally responsible to keep the fee. Member who opposed it, however, said families with more than one child faced an unfair financial burden.
As they did Thursday, board members Nancy Bauer and David Gorbunoff opposed the fee.
“We imposed this fee saying we would try to keep it short term, and we have an obligation to do that,” she said.
Bauer also stated that referring to the costs as a ‘user fee’ implies that those who partake in the activities are the only people who benefit from them.
“I don’t see this as a user fee,” she said. “I see students and families paying for things that the entire community enjoys…I think the community takes advantage of the high schools football games, plays, marching band, etc. I think we should return it. If we have to re-impose it, that’s fine.”
Gorbunoff said that school support was disproportionately distributed, and that many families are unfairly paying a larger chunk than others.
“Families that are paying a fee in addition to the taxes are supporting the schools a little bit more,” he said. “It’s not just the users benefitting; it’s the entire student body of the district and the taxpayers. They are able to get something from the many programs we have. If you want to give back to the people that are supporting, clearly the ones paying the fee are supporting.”
Board President Trip Whitehouse, a proponent of the fee as a stop-gap measure in tough economic times, said Monday's vote was, “not easy."
“I’m of the belief that these type of things the school provides—these basic services—should be rolled into taxes for the benefit of the whole,” he said. “When we enacted the fee, I made the statement that it would be short-term. As the financial landscape shifts, we might be in a better position to take it away. I was one who was cautiously optimistic that it could be temporary.”
The second proposal passed unanimously.
Though the board had its disagreements, everyone was pleased with the results of the meeting. The tax levy, however, is lower than it was in the 2010-2011 school year, marking the second consecutive year when the current tax levy was lower than the year previous. Bauer thought that the board should, “celebrate the fact that we’re able to lower the amount that Fanwood is paying. We should celebrate the fact that the amount for Scotch Plains is barely going up. This is such a dramatic difference from last year.”
Board member Donald Parisi credits the district’s well-structured financial foundation to its success.
“This budget is about value,” he said. “I firmly believe that people will vote for value. Value is here…If we compare our program’s outcomes to other [similar socio-economic] districts, we are as good or better. We meet or exceed in almost every single category. We get that done by spending less per pupil than other similar districts. We spend less, and the program still delivers.”
The Board will send the approved budget to the Executive County Superintendent. The county will then review and evaluate the district’s plan. If approved, Scotch Plains and Fanwood residents will vote on the budget in April.